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Lilian Medland was born in London on 29th May 1880. She came from a well-to-do family and was educated at home by a governess. She enjoyed outdoor pursuits such as skiing, cycling and mountain-climbing, and she was always interested in animals. This led to a series of unusual pets including a couple of lion cubs.

Lilian Medland
Passport photograph C1920 of Lilian Medland supplied by the Medland family. Image: Unknown
© Public Domain

She was only 16 when she began her training as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital. In that same year, 1906, she began work on the 318 plates required by surgeon Charles Stonham to illustrate the five volumes of his opus, The Birds of the British Islands. Before attempting this enormous task she had demonstrated her talent for painting miniatures but had not previously worked as a professional artist. She sketched her subjects over the course of many visits to the London Zoological Gardens.

She did not allow this work to interfere with her nursing career, or her nursing to stop her painting. After the completion of her work for Charles Stonham in 1911, she began working on a series of illustrations for William Yarrell. He was working on a revised version of his earlier A History of British Birds. However, the First World War intervened and the book was not completed, although Lilian had already produced many of the requested illustrations.

Tom Iredale was working freelance when they met at the British Museum. He was married to Alice [Atkinson] at the time, but after his divorce in 1923, he and Lilian were married. They moved to Sydney later that year and in August 1924, Tom joined the staff of the Australian Museum as Conchologist.

He had launched himself into a career in Conchology in 1906, after being introduced to the ‘life history of shells’ by his friend Walter Oliver. In spite of this new enthusiasm, he always maintained his interest in the study of birds which had been his previous focus.

Lilian painted the birds for the 1925 series of postcards issued by the Museum. The Scarlet Honeyeater from the postcard series appeared on the front cover of the Australian Museum Magazine published in October-December 1933. This was a marked change as the front cover had previously featured only the logo of the Museum and the table of contents. Subsequently, another 28 of the postcards painted by Lilian graced the cover of the magazine.

The postcards proved to be very popular. The Courier Mail in Brisbane declared that ‘Each postcard is a triumph of colour illustration and should appeal to a very wide public, and one not confined to Australia by any means.’ A scan through the reviews of the books that Lilian illustrated shows universal acclaim for her work, even when the reviewer was less than enthusiastic about the text that accompanied them.

Despite being an artist whose talents were widely appreciated she was not part of the social scene. This might have been due to a lack of interest or possibly because she was almost completely deaf as a result of the diphtheria she suffered in 1907.

Lilian continued to illustrate both articles and books, among them Tom’s Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds which was published in 1950. She died of cancer on 16th December, 1955, so she did not live to see the 1956 publication of Birds of New Guinea, the final book on which she and Tom collaborated.

Tom died on 12th April, 1972.

Additional information:

Brisbane Courier Mail, 8 January 1927, NLA Newspapers

A Tribute to Lilian Medland: Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW 1956-57

Iredale, Tom (1880–1972) by Tess Kloot - This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

A letter from Tom Iredale to his sister Bessie provided the information about Tom's conversion to Conchology in 1906. A copy of this letter was given to the Museum by the Iredale family.

www.pinterest.com/austmus/magazine-covers-1936-1942/ shows some of the magazine covers painted by Lilian